Cultural Hegemony

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

In describing the tea party vs. the intellectuals, Lee Harris explains Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony:

A generation before Orwell devised the idea of Newspeak, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci had developed a concept that in many ways foreshadowed it, but with one major and considerable difference. Before Gramsci discovered Marx, he had been a student of languages. Gramsci was especially fascinated by what happened when two languages collided. Throughout European history, conquerors had routinely moved into new territories where the inhabitants spoke a different language. In some cases, such as the Normans in France, it was the conquerors who picked up the language of the conquered, but more frequently, it was the other way around. What explained this fact? Why did a conquered people so often abandon their own language in order to learn the language of their conquerors?

Gramsci argued that what led people to discard their native language was the greater prestige of the conqueror’s language. The idea of prestige, which had never played a role in classical Marxism, became the key to Gramsci’s most famous concept, cultural hegemony. For Orwell, the cultural hegemony sought by the totalitarian state had to be imposed on the masses through diabolically cunning devices such as the telescreen, a reverse television system that permitted the Thought Police to watch and monitor the activities of citizens in the privacy of their own homes. People did not watch the telescreen. Instead they were watched by it, fully cognizant that if they did anything to displease Big Brother they could face the most ghastly consequences imaginable.

For Orwell the basis of cultural hegemony was terror. For Gramsci, on the other hand, it was prestige. Cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, did not have to be imposed on the people through threats and intimidation. It didn’t need to be imposed at all. Conquered subjects sought to emulate the prestigious language of their conquerors, while they simultaneously came to look down on their own native tongue as gross, defective, and inferior. In modern liberal societies the same principle has been at work, but with different players. As education became the ticket to worldly success, it naturally became a source of prestige. Prestige no longer came from conquest by arms, but from earning a Ph.D. In modern secular societies, the eminence of the intellectual elite allowed it to unilaterally allocate prestige to select ideas, thinkers, and institutions. Objects imbued with the magical glow of prestige did not need to be pushed on people — on the contrary, people eagerly vied with each other to obtain these objects, often at great personal sacrifice. That is why prestigious institutions, such as major universities, well-endowed foundations, and posh clubs invariably have far more candidates for admission than can possibly be accommodated — a selectivity that makes them even more desirable and prestigious. That is the beauty of prestige: It doesn’t need to lift a finger. It can just sit back and relax, confident that people will flock to its feet, begging for the crumbs from its luxuriant table.

A governing elite that has a monopoly over the allocation of prestige has immense power over a culture. It can decide what ideas, thinkers, and movements merit attention, while it can also determine what ideas, thinkers, and movements should be dismissed with scorn and contempt — assuming that the elite even condescends to notice their existence. Needless to say, such a setup will lead to a high degree of intellectual cronyism, in which members of the “in” group mutually endorse and reinforce each others’ prestige; but like crony capitalism, this is standard operating procedure of all elites and should come as no surprise. Relying on the natural human desire to gravitate towards prestige, the intellectual elite has no need to resort to the ham-fisted methods of Orwell’s Big Brother.

Despite the fact that Gramsci regarded himself as a Marxist, the central role that he gave to prestige led far from Marxist orthodoxy. In Marxism the ruling class can be easily identified: it has a monopoly on the production and distribution of things. For Gramsci, there is a new ruling class, which has a monopoly on the production and distribution of opinions. Capitalists only trade in products and services. Intellectuals shape and mold people’s perceptions and ideas. In earlier societies, in which intellectuals could only influence people by books and pamphlets, their reach was limited. But with the advent of the modern technology have come new means of reaching out to even the most illiterate masses, influencing them in new and subtle ways, while ingenious methods of psychological manipulation and subliminal persuasion have made it quite simple to mask propaganda under the guise of entertainment. The intellectual elite, simply by achieving cultural hegemony over the masses, could obtain a power of influencing the popular mind that tyrants and despots of a previous era only dreamt about. Because of their immense prestige with the general public, the intellectual elite can frequently win people over to their cause. Those who wish to be regarded as intelligent and current in their ideas will quickly move to adopt those ideas that happen to carry the greatest intellectual prestige at any given time, just as the fashion-conscious will quickly start dressing themselves in the latest clothes concocted by the most prestigious designers. The spell cast by prestige gives those who possess it an immense power to influence society. For Gramsci, the prestige of the dominant elite was sufficient to make people discard their native language in order to acquire a language that ranked higher in prestige. And if people are willing to change languages because of prestige, they will certainly be willing to change their ideas, their values, their customs, and their traditions for the same reason.

For better or for worse, the profound cultural changes in American life during the past half century are testament to the enormous influence exercised by our cultural guardians. Ideas, customs, and traditions that no longer find favor in the eyes of the cultural elite have been stigmatized as out-of-date and old-fashioned, while an array of progressive policies have received the imprimatur of elite prestige.


  1. Robert Speirs says:

    Lee Harris just doesn’t get it, though, does he? The “Tea Party” isn’t a party. It is a set of ideas. Republicans can’t “join the Tea Party”, although they can adopt its ideas The clearest picture I have seen of this distinction was at a Tea Party rally where the Republican Party had set up a table with literature on it. The whole time I was there I saw no one approach it. The conventional conservatives were shunned. They had allowed themselves and their ideas to be trodden upon by the Gramscian collectivists too many times.

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